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Unpopular Sovereignty: Rhodesian Independence and African Decolonization

Unpopular Sovereignty: Rhodesian Independence and African Decolonization

by Luise White

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In 1965 the white minority government of Rhodesia (after 1980 Zimbabwe) issued a unilateral declaration of independence from Britain, rather than negotiate a transition to majority rule. In doing so, Rhodesia became the exception, if not anathema, to the policies and practices of the end of empire. In Unpopular Sovereignty, Luise White shows that the exception that was Rhodesian independence did not, in fact, make the state that different from new nations elsewhere in Africa: indeed, this history of Rhodesian political practices reveals some of the commonalities of mid-twentieth-century thinking about place and race and how much government should link the two.  

White locates Rhodesia’s independence in the era of decolonization in Africa, a time of great intellectual ferment in ideas about race, citizenship, and freedom. She shows that racists and reactionaries were just as concerned with questions of sovereignty and legitimacy as African nationalists were and took special care to design voter qualifications that could preserve their version of legal statecraft. Examining how the Rhodesian state managed its own governance and electoral politics, she casts an oblique and revealing light by which to rethink the narratives of decolonization.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226235226
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 03/23/2015
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 368
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Luise White is professor of history at the University of Florida. She is the author of four books, including The Comforts of Home: Prostitution in Colonial Nairobi, also published by the University of Chicago Press.   

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Unpopular Sovereignty

Rhodesian Independence and African Decolonization

By Luise White

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-23522-6


"The last good white man left": Rhodesia, Rhonasia, and the Decolonization of British Africa

In November 1965, when almost all British territories in Africa had been granted their independence, Rhodesia's white minority government made a Unilateral Declaration of Independence from Britain. This was UDI, an acronym that would serve both to mark the event and to describe the period of Rhodesian independence, which lasted until 1980. Or 1979: Rhodesia, which had been Southern Rhodesia until 1964, became Zimbabwe-Rhodesia in 1979, with a no less independent government with an elected African head of state. It became majority-ruled independent Zimbabwe in 1980. These four names have been collapsed into two—Rhodesia and Zimbabwe—and have produced some discursive flourishes that have generated two histories, a before-and-after that literally makes the past a prologue, an exception to the natural order that was decolonization, an interruption that slowed down the history of what should have happened. These two histories have been routinely deployed as an example of the well-wrought story of a colony becoming an independent nation. In the story of Rhodesia becoming Zimbabwe it is one of the success of guerrilla struggle and the valiant triumph of universal rights. But it is a story that even at its best leaves out the peculiarities of local politics and difference, not to mention one or two of the country's names. The result is a history in which Rhodesia was the racist anomaly, an eager if secondhand imitation of South Africa's apartheid. Rhodesia—and Southern Rhodesia, and Zimbabwe-Rhodesia—hardly merits any analysis beyond the racism of its renegade independence. It is an example or an occurrence; it has no specific history.

The Country No One Can Name

At the level of popular and academic history and at the level of diplomacy, Rhodesia was the place that no one could even name: for years after the country took its own independence Britain referred to it as Southern Rhodesia while much of the historiography refers to "colonial Zimbabwe," although Rhodesia had never really been a formal colony in the way that Kenya or Gabon had been. On one hand, not calling Rhodesia Rhodesia was a way to show how illegitimate it really was. On the other, calling Rhodesia colonial Zimbabwe served—as did talk of the decolonization of Algeria—to change its history, to return clumsy governance and messy episodes to the normal, linear story of colony to nation.

The two names make for a definitive break. This is the literature of The Past Is Another Country, the title of a journalist's account of the events and negotiations that ended white rule; it is in a genre of crossing a threshold, from oppression to freedom. Authors and activists announced, with pride or sadness depending on the circumstance, that they would never return to Rhodesia, only to arrive in Zimbabwe at the start of the next chapter. Indeed, once Rhodesia became Zimbabwe it became a commonplace for history texts to begin with a before-and-after list of place names. Obviously a before-and-after list cannot do justice to all the names of the country, but I have dispensed with such a list altogether because of my misgivings about the whole before-and-after enterprise. Place names and how they change are important, to be sure, but all too often the then-and-now lists that show that African names have replaced those chosen by settlers (Harare for Salisbury, for example, but see Mutare for Umtali, or Kadoma for Gatooma) suggest that a new name represents a resolution, a wrong that has now been righted.

Almost as common as the list of place names is a chronology or time line in the front matter of a text. A few begin the country's history with the building of Great Zimbabwe, but most start the chronology with European contact in 1509 or with the first white settlers in 1890. Even the most African nationalist books have chronologies that begin in 1890. Chronologies may have been required by publishers who thought Central Africa too remote for many readers, but the ways these chronologies begin suggest a desire to historicize the land—even if it cannot be named—and establish a claim to territory whoever the population is and whenever it got there. Rhodesia's territory was never really contested, but who lived on it, and where they lived, was. One critical argument of this book is that the idea of place—as in "patria" and "locus"—was in flux for much of the 1960s and 1970s. Independent Rhodesia was likened to Britain at its best, or to Britain in the 1940s, or to Sparta, or to the European nations handed to Hitler by Neville Chamberlin, or to Hungary in 1956. In the rhetoric of its independence, what located Rhodesians firmly in Africa was not its African population, but its white one. Party hacks called upon the genealogy of brave pioneers who had tamed the land bare-handed. "The Rhodesian was the last good white man left," recalled P. K. van der Byl, a post–World War II immigrant who was to hold several portfolios in the Rhodesian cabinet.

But good white men or bad ones, the fact was that the white population of Southern Rhodesia (and Rhodesia) was small, never amounting to as much as 5 percent of the total population of the country. There were fewer than 34,000 Europeans in Southern Rhodesia in 1921 and the numbers gradually increased to about 85,000 in 1946. Within six years the population was almost 140,000; it peaked at 277,000 in 1961. These figures are misleading, however, as they do not show how peripatetic the white population was: of the seven hundred original pioneers who arrived in 1890, only fifteen lived in the country in 1924. Many came and went because of changing opportunities in regional industries, particularly mining, while others used South Africa, Northern Rhodesia, or Britain as a base from which to launch new careers. These were the men called "Good Time Charlies" in the press and "rainbow boys" in parliament. This pattern intensified as the population trebled: there were almost equal numbers of white immigrants and white emigrants for most of the early 1960s. It was only during the boom years of 1966–1971 that white immigration exceeded white emigration by significant amounts. After that, more whites left the country than came to live there.

This book, then, is a history of Rhodesia's independence and its place—clumsy governance and messy episodes and all—in what was everywhere else postcolonial Africa. Caroline Elkins has argued that after 1945, white settlers in Africa dug in against the colonial retreat and claimed a popular sovereignty for themselves alone, insisting that they constituted a people who had the legitimacy to trump empire and to make claims equivalent to those independent nations could make. This book argues something quite different, that white settlers and white residents and whites who were just passing through utilized a hodgepodge of institutions and laws and practices in Rhodesia to maintain what they refused to call white rule but instead relabeled as responsible government by civilized people. They did not claim to be "the people" worthy of sovereignty but instead proclaimed membership in an empire, or the West, or an anticommunism that had no national boundaries. I am writing against, for want of a better term, the story of Rhodesia becoming Zimbabwe, which is itself a version of colonies becoming nation-states: I am writing a history of how Rhodesia and its several names disrupt that narrative and show how awkward and uneven it was.

Southern Rhodesia: A Short History

Southern Rhodesia was founded as a chartered colony of the British South Africa Company in 1890. It was Cecil Rhodes's attempt to find more gold and to create a buffer against the Dutch in South Africa. Thirty years later a rebellion had been vanquished, South Africa was British, the gold mines were not wholly successful, and a chartered colony did not fit easily with the imperial world after the Treaty of Versailles. Indeed, Jan Smuts, an architect of the mandate system of the League of Nations, wanted Southern Rhodesia to join the Union of South Africa, but a white electorate of less than fifteen thousand, fearing an influx of white Afrikaaners, rejected this in 1922. In 1923, the British government expropriated the British South Africa Company, which then ceased to administer both Northern and Southern Rhodesia. The company maintained some rights in Northern Rhodesia but Southern Rhodesia was annexed to the crown as a colony but would have responsible government. This had a specific and limited meaning in 1923: Britain had the right to make laws for Southern Rhodesia but the colony could legislate its own internal affairs so long as these did not affect African land rights and political rights, such as they were. The assembly was elected, and the cabinet was chosen from ministers all of whom were appointed by the governor, including the prime minister. In a very short time the Southern Rhodesian government presented all draft legislation to Britain and amended or abandoned them if the United Kingdom objected, thus making the limits of responsible government barely visible.

This version of responsible government did not give Rhodesia dominion status, as many white politicians were to insist forty years later. Dominion status was itself very indistinct: it was an ambiguous term used to convey that some self-governing states—Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and the Union of South Africa after 1910—were to some degree subordinate to Britain. At its most clear-cut it marked a space between internal self-government and full independence, and as such it proved a useful procedural route to the independence of the Indian subcontinent. It was South Africa, and the union Southern Rhodesia rejected, that had dominion status with responsible government. Southern Rhodesia had responsible government without dominion status.

Throughout the 1920s, commercial agriculture expanded. Even as Britain regarded Southern Rhodesia's African policies as more progressive than those of South Africa, the Land Apportionment Act of 1930—the cornerstone of settler society, wrote Victor Machingaidze—evicted thousands of Africans from their farms to guarantee that land was available to new white farmers. A few years later the government of Southern Rhodesia created Native Purchase Areas, to compensate Africans not necessarily for their loss of land, but for their loss of the right to purchase land anywhere in the country. The scheme never managed to settle the fifty thousand African farmers Rhodesian officials both hoped and feared would create a propertied African middle class, but the ten thousand Purchase Area farmers who took advantage of the scheme occupied a unique space in how Rhodesians imagined African politics, as chapters 6, 9, and 11 show. This pattern, of openings for white immigrants yet to come that closed down opportunities for Africans, was to be repeated for years, especially after World War II, when the white population grew rapidly as commercial agriculture became once again profitable.

In 1951, Southern Rhodesia introduced the Native Land Husbandry Act (NLHA). Funded by the World Bank, it marked a significant shift in thinking about Africans, as Jocelyn Alexander has argued: Africans were no longer communal tribesmen, but rational actors operating within an impersonal market. Each man was a yeoman farmer. There would be fewer but more productive farms in the reserves; rural Africans should not be intermittent farmers, nor could they lay claim to land they had not worked for years. Urban Africans were to live in townships and rely exclusively on their wages: The actual implementation of the act was slow, however, and gave chiefs considerable latitude about how to protect their own land and cattle while safeguarding their rights over land redistribution. African opposition to the act was intense. The Southern Rhodesia African National Congress (SRANC) and its successor, the National Democratic Party (NDP), made land, not voting, the center of their political platforms, and their actions in towns and countryside brought about a range of repressive legislation that was to shape the history of Rhodesia. A state of emergency was declared in early 1959. Many leaders of the SRANC were detained. In prison they founded the NDP and continued to direct party affairs, as we shall see in chapter 3. The Law and Order (Maintenance) Act of 1960 strengthened not only executive power but that of security forces just as trade unionists struggled with—and sometimes against—nationalists while political parties sent youth leagues into townships to rally support, often with great violence and always with easy accusations that rivals had collaborated with the regime. By the time the NLHA was withdrawn in the early 1960s the rapidly overcrowded reserves were once more under the authority of chiefs and headmen.

Even as the government planned for a new kind of African farmer, officials in London, Salisbury, and Lusaka planned ways for new white immigrants to live in Africa. This was the Central African Federation, established in 1953. Federations within the British Empire had been promoted first in the 1880s, a way to secure British greatness in a way that made the nation global and British nationality the basis for political organization. There was one population—AngloSaxon—that could bring stability to a chaotic colonial world. As the idea of an imperial federation waned in Britain, the idea of merging of Southern and Northern Rhodesia in some way took shape in the 1920s. There were fantastic ideas with fantastic maps. The Central African Federation created in the early 1950s was in large part a product of pressure exerted by mining companies on the Colonial Office, which itself grappled with how the new white immigrants would live in Africa: in old colonies or in new kinds of states. In the end the Colonial Office agreed to a federation of Southern and Northern Rhodesia so long as it included Nyasaland. The widespread joke in Southern Rhodesia was that the federation was a "marriage of convenience" between a wealthy bride (copper-rich Northern Rhodesia) and a hardworking husband (the not-so-coded reference to white settlers in Southern Rhodesia). Impoverished Nyasaland was accepted "as the unavoidable mother-in-law in the matrimonial home." But many whites in Southern Rhodesia were elated: the goal of some kind of merging with Northern Rhodesia, a tobacco farmer said, was that "the copper mines could pay for the development of the whole area ... the same as the coal mines did in Britain and gold in South Africa." What was to distress many whites in Southern Rhodesia was the degree to which the question of Southern Rhodesia's status was mooted by the creation of the federation.

The structure of the federation disrupted the familiar hierarchies of colonial rule, in which the Colonial Office appointed a governor to oversee the territory and to act according to the reports of district and provincial officials. In the Central African Federation, Southern Rhodesia came under the supervision of the Commonwealth Relations Office (CRO); the federal government which oversaw the administration of Northern Rhodesia and Nyasaland was located in Salisbury while the two territories were nominally under the control of the Colonial Office. The federal government and those of the two northern territories were often in conflict; the Colonial Office usually did not support the federal government, about which officials in Salisbury complained loudly. This made Southern Rhodesia's status as a British possession even more ambiguous than it had been, and it made party politics layered. The federation introduced a tiered political system of federal and territorial assemblies and political parties that operated at both levels. It also required a determination of who, if anyone, would elect representatives to these bodies. There were federal electoral commissions and territorial franchise commissions. As chapter 2 shows, these did not promote universal adult suffrage but instead worked out convoluted imaginaries by which each territory would have something called nonracial politics that eventually would lead to parity between black and white in legislative bodies. The franchise commission in Southern Rhodesia, where voter qualifications had not changed since the 1930s, did not seek to expand or to limit African voting so much as it sought to hone it, to make sure that voter qualifications met African experiences, and to make sure Africans did not vote based on appeals to their emotions, emotions all too often triggered by talk of race. It is easy enough to read these commissions as a last gasp of white supremacy, but that would flatten the very active debates about race and politics that they engendered. There was a range of multiracial organizations, as we will see in the next chapter, and a social world, best chronicled by Philip Mason, of Salisbury dinners in which white people argued about the ideas of Burke and Mill and who should be allowed to vote.


Excerpted from Unpopular Sovereignty by Luise White. Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Table of Contents

A Note on Sources
Place Names, Party Names, and Currency
1 “The last good white man left”: Rhodesia, Rhonasia, and the Decolonization of British Africa
 2 “Racial representation of the worst type”: The 1957 Franchise Commission, Citizenship, and the Problem of Polygyny
 3 “European opinion and African capacities”: The Life and Times of the 1961 Constitution
 4 “A rebellion by a population the size of Portsmouth”: The Status of Rhodesia’s Independence, 1965–1969
 5 “A James Bond would be truly at home”: Sanctions and Sanctions Busters
 6 “Politics as we know the term”: Tribes, Chiefs, and the 1969 Constitution
 7 “Other peoples’ sons”: Conscription, Citizenship, and Families, 1970–1980
 8 “Why come now and ask us for our opinion?”: The 1972 Pearce Commission and the African National Council
 9 “Your vote means peace”: The Making and the Unmaking of the Internal Settlement, 1975–1979
 10 “Lancaster House was redundant”: Constitutions, Citizens, and the Frontline Presidents
 11 “Adequate and acceptable”: The 1980 Election and the Idea of Decolonization
 12 “People such as ourselves”: Rhodesia, Rhonasia, and the History of Zimbabwe

What People are Saying About This

Mrinalini Sinha author of Specters of Mother India

“White’s Unpopular Sovereignty is a groundbreaking contribution to studies of decolonization. She places the seemingly anomalous history of Rhodesian independence within the decolonization of the rest of Africa. This is combined with a reanimation of the history of the ‘high politics’ of late colonialism by incisive accounts of the effects of various franchise commissions and experiments at constitution writing. The result is one of the most decisive challenges to linear versions of decolonization: of Rhodesia-into-Zimbabwe, to be sure, but also, more broadly, of colonies into nation-states. Written with characteristic brilliance, verve, and wit, Unpopular Sovereignty will become indispensable reading for scholars of colonialism and of the postcolonial world.” 

Siba N’Zatioula Grovogui

“Set in the late-colonial context of decolonization in Africa, this masterful book demonstrates that sovereignty does not flow in a linear fashion and according to preordained coordinates; and, that its predicates and foundations—political autonomy and self-government, on the one hand, and political identity and subjectivity, on the other—abide time and space in unpredictable ways. Relating the arguments to contemporary Zimbabwe, White demonstrates once and for all that the nature of sovereign power or associated political processes and outcomes are better understood through the manners in which shifting terrains of global, regional, and local alliances shaped the interests and the terms of the quest for power for protagonists—white minorities and so-called native populations alike. This is a truly impressive intervention in the historiography (and theory) of decolonization in Zimbabwe that holds significant insights for accounts of postcolonial sovereignty everywhere. Simply wonderful and a joy to read.”

Siba N’Zatioula Grovogui

“Set in the late-colonial context of decolonization in Africa, this masterful book demonstrates that sovereignty does not flow in a linear fashion and according to preordained coordinates; and, that its predicates and foundations—political autonomy and self-government, on the one hand, and political identity and subjectivity, on the other—abide time and space in unpredictable ways. Relating the arguments to contemporary Zimbabwe, White demonstrates once and for all that the nature of sovereign power or associated political processes and outcomes are better understood through the manners in which shifting terrains of global, regional, and local alliances shaped the interests and the terms of the quest for power for protagonists—white minorities and so-called native populations alike. This is a truly impressive intervention in the historiography (and theory) of decolonization in Zimbabwe that holds significant insights for accounts of postcolonial sovereignty everywhere. Simply wonderful and a joy to read.”

Martin Chanock

“This is a thorough, comprehensive, and well-researched book that will be the essential starting point for the reconsideration of Zimbabwe’s recent history and historiography. A sharply acute and very readable study that resets the foundations for the understanding of Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965, it sets the events surrounding and following UDI in the context of African decolonisation and in their international context. With fascinating accounts of the constitutional machinations and the regime of economic sanctions and its failures, it is unrivalled as a rich resource for the period based on a very wide range of sources.”

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